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It’s normal to want to do your best. But when it comes to studying, striving for perfect results isn’t always equal to doing your best. In fact, it’s possible that perfectionism is actually hindering your chance of success.
If you tend towards perfectionism, what is the best way to study? And what are some common traps to avoid?
Dr Arlene Walker, Associate Head of School (Rural and Regional Development) in Deakin University’s School of Psychology, says one of the biggest traps of perfectionism can be procrastination. ‘Sometimes students are so frightened of not doing things perfectly that they put off starting their assignments for so long that it leads to anxiety around having not completed the task,’ Dr Walker explains.
Dr Alexa Hayley, who also lectures in the School of Psychology at Deakin, says a similar trap for perfectionists is they tend to ‘over-research’. ‘They feel like they don’t have a sound enough understanding of the task so they keep reading or finding more materials instead of just getting some words down on paper,’ she says.
Since assignments need to be completed within a set timeframe, it’s important to just get started. ‘Read, summarise and write and then add to that rather than trying to all the background reading done first,’ Dr Walker says. ‘Waiting to have all the research done first just delays getting words down.’
Similarly, spending too much time planning how you are going to study can get in the way of actually doing the work. ‘Students can spend an enormous amount of unnecessary time making a timeline that they never stick to anyway,’ Dr Walker says.
Dr Hayley advises students to keep it simple: ‘Creating a general timeline so you have an idea of when things are due is good but spending unnecessary time ordering, listing and things like that can make students feel like they’ve got a sense of control over the task when it’s actually just taking up time that could have contributed to completing the actual task.’
Another thing that perfectionists might do is start from the start rather than create a skeleton for their assignment. ‘They tend to want to write the perfect introduction and then the perfect next paragraph and next paragraph,’ Dr Hayley explains. ‘Really, if you get the skeleton down and start filling it out as you go then you’ve already got words on the page that you can build on.’
Dr Walker agrees: ‘It doesn’t have to be in the order of the final completed task will be in. I talk about doing it in “bricks”. Little bricks build a bigger wall.’
'Sometimes students are so frightened of not doing things perfectly that they put off starting their assignments for so long that it leads to anxiety around having not completed the task.'
Dr Arlene Walker,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University
Dr Hayley often sees students who feel that if their work isn’t perfect they’d rather not submit it. ‘They don’t want people to see their work because they feel that it could be better or they know what it ought to be and that is really problematic,’ she says. ‘Particularly where you have students with mental health or disability issues – their own perfectionism is disabling to the point where it creates so much anxiety for them.’
Sometimes the achievement is just getting the task done and submitted. ‘The achievement isn’t necessarily demonstrating your best work,’ Dr Hayley explains. ‘It’s just getting that task done and saying to yourself ‘I did it, it’s not perfect but there it is.’ It’s a lesson that we probably don’t emphasise enough to students – it’s not always about the best work it’s about getting the work in’.
Dr Walker says another trap for perfectionists is they can lose sight of the bigger picture. ‘They can become so fixated on the grade that they lose sight of the feedback and how to use the feedback for their greater learning,’ she explains. ‘In the end it becomes all about the final grade instead of being about the learning from the task.’
At university there are rubrics that spell out what the expectations are to get a good grade. Despite this, perfectionists can sometimes get caught up focusing too much energy in the wrong part of the assignment. ‘It’s about keeping focus on what they’ve been asked to do and using the assessment outline or the rubric to make sure they are on track,’ Dr Walker says.
Perfectionists may be so focused on doing well in their study that they dedicate all of their time to their university work. Dr Walker encourages students to continue with their extracurricular interests in order to keep a sense of study-life balance. ‘Those other aspects outside of study give you the energy to continue,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to have an outlet.’
If you’re studying and you’re unsure of what’s required for success it’s important to ask for help. ‘People often think they might look silly so they don’t actually reach out for help,’ Dr Walker says. ‘If they had asked for help the task could have been clarified and they would have been okay.’
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